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XII

They ate well enough, and they got a little drunk, and they went back upstairs and went to their separate rooms. The boys got their baths: management was too busy to get a new batch of hot water up the stairs, so they just bathed in the ladies’ bath water.

Back in the ladies’ chamber, Sophie and Irena made ready for bed. “So tired,” said Irena. “So look forward to this.”

“So you don’t want to go buy yourself some new clothes now?” asked Sophie.

“You hear your man Marthen,” said Irena, lying down on the bed in her dress, with her thick socks on. “He says we have days yet. Maybe we get good price?”

“Maybe,” said Sophie.

“Going lie down? Is plenty of room.”

“Sure,” said Sophie. “Should I blow out the candle?”

“Nah. Let burn.”

With a shrug, Sophie lay down on Irena’s left. There was just about enough room for them both, and Sophie’s feet, also in socks (made by her mom), stuck off the end of the bed. Sophie expected Irena to have some more to say, but the woman was quiet, and in less than a minute her sleep breathing could be heard.

Sophie lay, wide awake, for some time, thinking she would never fall asleep. It was weird, not sleeping in a tiny tent with her dad. It was weird, being back in Merrivan, which seemed like an entirely different city. It was weird not even remembering where they had stayed before. It was weird being here after the battle, after the loss of whole provinces, after the fall of her home town and the market town that served it. It was weird, having probably lost her whole family except for Dad. It was weird having killed seven, nine, ten? Ten men, in the past couple of weeks.

She lay thinking of what she had lost, not of what she had gained, of what she had learned, and worrying about what she had forgotten. She lay thinking of what she had to do, and what she didn’t know how to do. She lay thinking of who she served, and what she cared about, and what she could still save from the wreck of what had seemed to be her life. She lay thinking of how in spite of it all she had somehow never been happier than she had been, at times, these past two weeks, riding in the woods, sleeping on the ground, hunting and cooking and eating and choosing her road anew. She lay adding it up and comparing, what she had lost and what she had seen, and the next thing she knew, she was waking in the morning, a thin sun coming through the open window, Irena moving about, humming.

They had breakfast of porridge in the common room, and then they went shopping and got Irena two new dresses and some warm socks, and Sophie got herself a new shirt and some warm socks. They bought a few cooking utensils and some spices, a nice bag of salt, a chunk of cheese, a jug of wine. Then they went for a walk in the city, which seemed only slightly more familiar than it had last night. They took with them everything they thought precious.

Sophie and Irena went to the north gate, which was securely shut, and found it fairly easy to climb onto the nicely built north wall and look off its stone parapet, ten feet above the ground outside. They weren’t the only people taking this tour: the townsfolk seemed to think it a proper spot for a day trip. Before them now, across Merrivan’s northern farms, an invading army began to spread and organize itself: horse pens here and here and there, supply yards there and there, tents everywhere. Farm houses were burned or commandeered as headquarters. Livestock still on the farms were led into new pens to be milked or butchered to feed the invading army.

Sophie had expected that a Frungan envoy would approach and seek audience with the King, and that demands would be made and rejected and negotiated and agreed on. Nothing like that seemed about to happen. The Frungans were gathering on the north side and assembling their equipment and their forces for an attack, and their cavalry was already patrolling all around the city, and it struck her that to the people inside it was all somewhat of a lark.

“So what’s the King going to do?” asked Sophie of no one. Irena just shook her head. Around them, a dozen Merrivanians gawked at the scene before them.

“What’s the King to do with it?” an old man nearby said.

“Well, isn’t he sort of, you know,” said Sophie, “supposed to, I don’t know—!”

“Hey,” said a gruff guardsman, moving toward their group along the top of the wall, “you folk ain’t supposed to be up here, you know.”

Having said his piece, the guardsman kept going. Sophie and the others watched him walk away and went back to rubbernecking.

They ate in the common room again that night. It was the same plain, decent fare, a stew and some bread and a young ale and some cheese. Dad and Marthen had tried to find some authority at the Halls, again, and again had utterly failed. Then they had tried to get in to see someone at the King’s citadel palace, a tiny but well-fortified triad of round towers in the northwest quarter of the city, and again they had failed. There was no Sir Bodon, though there were lots of knights and nobles from the kingdoms in the south, presumably worried about losing their investment in the kingdom centered at Merrivan.

“It’s the King of Frunga,” said Sophie, “not the King from such and such city. And Helark’s king isn’t actually the King of Helark, he’s the King of Helara. So what’s John? King of Merrivan?”

“No, no,” said Marthen. “That would imply that he’s not king of anywhere else.”

“Well,” said Dad, “he’s not going to be, if he don’t do something.”

“Question,” said Irena. “What means ‘do’? Do, does, don’t, doesn’t. What is?”

“It’s just a word,” said Sophie. “We stick it in wherever.”

“It’s a verb,” said Dad, glaring at Sophie. “It’s a helping verb,” said Marthen.

“Any other language questions?” asked Dad.

“Sure. Yes,” said Irena. “Why you, why do you, put in, everywhere, before words, ‘a’ and ‘the’? What means, what is meaning of ‘the’? Does, does it mean anything?”

The native speakers all looked at each other. “Okay,” said Sophie, “it sort of tells you if it’s a particular one like the King, or if it’s just some king, a king.”

Irena stared at her for a few seconds, then shrugged. Then she looked at Dad and said, “Anyway, you mean doesn’t.”

“What?”

“If he doesn’t do something.”

Dad laughed. “Ah, Irena. It sure does me good to have you correct my speech. I mean, if that doesn’t beat all.”

They laughed and made jokes and drank a fair amount, and eventually they went up to their rooms. Marthen dumped his money bag on the floor by the bed he shared with Dad, Sophie set her sword on the floor in the shadow of the bed she shared with Irena, they had a last chat in Dad’s room, and then they parted and went to bed. Sophie and Irena chatted in the dark for a while, in the light of a single fat old candle, and then Irena dropped off to sleep. Soon she was softly snoring.

Again Sophie felt that sleep had never been further from her. She couldn’t think why. She should be tired. Maybe it was the restless energy of the big city. Of Merrivan. Riiiight. Whatever.

But it was no use fighting it. One could not struggle oneself to sleep. She lay another minute, and then rolled off soundlessly to stand by the bed. She checked in her pants pocket: yep, seven silver and a few copper. She pulled on her jacket. She found her boots without too much trouble, took them out in the hall, listened at Dad’s door—they were chatting jovially as one of them bathed. She went and sat on the stairs to pull her boots on. Then she was down the stairs and out the side door onto the alley.

Sophie decided that a good walk in the chill evening air would do her wonders. And wonders she saw, wonders she had never imagined as a girl in Mudwick: for instance, at least a dozen men peeing in alleys, and several peeing in streets, and several women peeing in alleys and at least one man going all the way to number two in a dead end lane between derelict houses. She saw any number of dead animals—rats, something larger like a muskrat, a few cats and dogs, a few pigeons. She saw dead that could only have been human, dumped in alleys and ditches and forgotten.

She also saw lots of live people and animals, lots of men and women and children pushing through crowds in the intersections or loitering on the edge of the street or in houses seen or heard through windows. A few were on rooftops; one was peeing off a rooftop. Several times she saw old women drawing hexes on doors in colored paint. Most of the people were just going about their business in the dark of night, and some had business whose nature was not obvious. Sophie made sure to push her pony tail down into the back of her jacket, and pull her warm cap over her hair, and given her height and relative lack of bosom, not to mention the sword stuck in her belt, she went largely unbothered.

She walked and walked and stopped across from the east wall to have a good look. The moon was between half and full and was casting a rich light on the wall, which didn’t look like much and wouldn’t look like much more in the sunlight. It was wood plank and about six feet high, and it stretched between a couple of squat stone towers at least two hundred feet apart, and while it would probably provide decent cover for any archers who might be placed on the low scaffolding behind it, they had best be careful not to lean too hard. There were knots of men along the wall, messing around drinking, pushing each other around, puking on the scaffolding. She stood across the wall street from the scene, taking it in.

“Well,” she said to herself, “they’re definitely not ready to defend the walls, but on the other hand, if the Frungans were about to attack, wouldn’t these idiots be the first to know?”

She felt eyes on her, and she turned, expecting to see someone to slug. Instead she found herself the subject of the gaze of three, no, four women who might have been prostitutes, or wives or girlfriends or mothers of the men along the wall, or just beggars, or possibly witches on the lookout for things to hex. Sophie returned their gaze only for a moment, and then turned on her boot heel and walked away as fast as she could along the wall street. She turned at the next street and headed back into town. A block of walking and she could forget there even was a wall.

She passed an open door and pleasant sounds came out: some people were playing instruments, someone was dealing out pints of beer, and lots of folk, men and women alike, were standing around talking. A few were attempting to confine a jig to a small patch of open floor.

Sophie went in, fished out a silver and held it out to the lady pouring the beer. “The ruddy ones are plenty,” said the ale wife. Sophie put her silver back and got out a copper, a dirty thing with a vague approximation of King John VIII on it, and that bought her a wooden mug of ale.

There wasn’t much area to stand inside the little tavern, so Sophie stepped out onto the street, where the rest of the spillover was. She sipped: it was pretty good, for an ale that had not been alive more than two weeks.

“Think we have a chance?” a fellow with a thin beard asked when she took a spot next to him. Sophie shrugged.

“Oh, we got a chance,” said an old guy on his other side. “Lightning might strike down King Olk of Frunga. Virgin could bring a plague down on ‘em, like in them olden days.”

“Ground could open up and swallow that there army,” said an old woman. She cackled, then doused it in a quaff. Sophie smirked and quaffed too. This stuff was pretty good.

“Naw,” said a middle-aged man. “We wait them out till winter, and we watch them wither away. It works every time.” He turned away and gazed up the street toward the wall.

“Except,” said Sophie, emboldened perhaps by her beer, “every time someone does that to you, you lose more of those farms, more of those villages, and you never get them back, and you can’t feed a town this size without those farms and villages, and that is a fact.” She drank.

“Hey,” said the man next to her, the one with the thin beard, “you a girl?”

“And you keep going this way,” she went on, “and you’re not defending anything. You’re starving a little at a time. And those walls? No one’s even bothering to fix them up, are they? That’s all you have to stop King Olk and ten thousand? You had a look at those, right?”

“Prefer not to,” said the old man.

“You are a girl,” said the man next to Sophie. “You got a boyfriend? ‘Cause if not—!”

“Put that beer down,” said Sophie, her heart racing.

“What?”

“Put your beer down. Don’t want to spill it, it’s good stuff.”

With a laugh, he set his beer down on the ground. He turned to face her, and here came her right hand, the base of it planting in his forehead. He bowed back, and her left fist was into his belly, He bent over and seemed inclined to have a lie down. She and the old guy caught him and lowered him gently to the ground. When Sophie stood up, the old lady handed her the extra beer.

“Ah, you finish it,” said Sophie. She drank down the rest of hers: yes, she was finding her way to actually liking ale. She set the cup down and found the old couple watching her. “Well,” she said, “this is just what I needed. You folks gonna get out of town?”

“You think we should?” asked the old man. “Wife and me?”

“I’m coming around to that opinion,” said Sophie. “But what do I know?”

Sophie managed to find her way back to the inn and back upstairs. She got into the room without waking Irena, got her boots off, dumped her coat on the floor, set her dad’s sword, no, her sword against the side of the cot and lay down, listening to Irena breathing, snoring a bit. Sophie stilled herself and tried to think calming thoughts. Slowly she calmed.

Did she sense her mother nearby? Or the Shadow Man? Or Father Slumber, who came throwing puffs of dust on the eyes of those who deserved to sleep? No, none of those, although she found herself picturing her mother in the house last summer, her mother rolling out pie crust, her mother smiling as she watched Nell nurse her baby. Sophie longed to long for the old days, longed to long for her mother’s arms.

But much as she longed to long for something that was not there, she could not make herself long for something that was not there. Perhaps this was the surest sign that it was not there. Or perhaps she had been right to think that her mother would only appear to her now if her mother were a ghost. Or perhaps she had been misinformed about the nature of ghosts. Or perhaps the gloom of an October night was just as empty as it seemed to be.

Irena had not taken the position her mother had filled. No, Irena seemed to have taken the vacant position of auntie, left by the death by stroke of her dad’s sister two years ago. Sophie lay thinking of it, remembering Aunt Meg, remembering her mother’s four brothers, remembering her grandmothers, her mom’s mom gone since Sophie was four, her dad’s mom whose scarf she still wore at this moment. She touched it, loose about her neck. And there, as if turning left instead of right in dense woods, she found herself on a long and pointless journey in her head. Many minutes later she still lay thinking, and many minutes after that she woke suddenly, not having realized she had been falling asleep.

Now she had the strongest sense that there was someone in the room, someone other than the softly snoring Irena. She lay there considering: yes, there were two sets of stealthy breaths, one from her faux aunt beside her, and one from near the door.

She slipped out of bed and crouched, listening again. She found the hilt of her sword—it was definitely, doubtlessly her sword now. She crept the two steps to the door. She crouched again. She was face to face with the intruder.

“Dad,” she said.

“Hm? Huh?” said Dad.

“Wake up. What on earth are you doing in here?”

“Huh? Hm? Oh my gosh, Sophie. I must’ve walked in my sleep.”

“You walked, and you came in here, and you decided to sit down on the floor by the door and go back to sleep?”

“Well,” he said, “I couldn’t sleep in there, okay? I’m used to having you there. He, geez, he doesn’t even breathe when he’s asleep. It’s nervewracking. At least Irena breathes.”

“She doesn’t snore as loud as you do, Dad.” They paused and listened to Irena’s soft noises.

Then they both jumped without even getting up—there was a crash next door. Irena jumped up cursing in her own language.

Sophie pushed Dad out of her way, and by the time he was in the door behind her, she was in the next room. There was another crash, and another, and then the moonlight was streaming in through the shutters Sophie had thrown open.

By the time Dad was back with a candle lit from the one in Irena’s room, Sophie and Marthen stood over two men. One was out cold, and one was starting to come around.

“Take that candle, Marthen,” said Sophie. “Dad, help me with this guy.”

“Help you?”

“He wants to go out the frickin’ window, Dad. Take it from me. Can you help me give him his wish?”

“He’s not dead, is he?” asked Dad, yielding up the candle and noting the lack of blood about.

“No, Dad, as you can plainly see. I used the butt of the sword. It’s got a lovely bolt down there, it’s great for this sort of thing. Come on, we’re only on the second floor.”

Indeed, the man on the floor was trying to ascend to hands and knees, and not having a great time of it.

Dad looked at Marthen, who was drawn up on the bed clutching his bag. “I think he might need to get whacked again,” said Marthen. “Show him that lovely bolt.”

“No, no, goin’,” said the intruder, stepping over to the window. Dad and Sophie gave him the bum’s rush, and then tossed his still-unconscious friend out after him. They turned, and there was Irena in the door, clutching her own bag.

“Go get mine too,” said Sophie. “We are all sleeping in this room tonight. Is everyone in this town a thief or a perv?”

“A what?” asked Dad.

“Never mind. Jerks.”

And so they all found places to sleep in the one little room, and they slept peacefully enough, until the smell of burning wood woke Sophie just before dawn.

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