Joe wasn’t really surprised that he had to wait for those explanations. Jenny had cited the need to make preparations and the fact that there would be plenty of time for long discussion while they traversed the Golden Sea, and while Joe knew a deflection when he heard it, that one had the benefit of making good, solid sense. He resolved to pin her down harder if she tried it again once they were out of town, but this didn’t seem the moment to push. You had to read the other player, know when to fold and when to hold.
Thus, he arrived at the head of Sarasio’s main street the following morning none the wiser about the adventure on which he’d agreed to embark, not to mention slightly bleary despite the strong black tea he’d downed before setting out. He had ended up cutting short his usual night at the poker table, for the sake of notifying the Sheriff of his plans—not that there was much she could do, but he’d promised—and then getting an early night’s sleep. He hated being poorly-rested for the same reason he didn’t drink: any condition which messed up the normal functioning of his brain made it amazingly uncomfortable to exist with his specific package of talents and perceptions. Joe required his body to immediately and precisely turn information into action, otherwise he felt naked, vulnerable, and stressed occasionally to the verge of panic.
Given what little he knew was going on, it was altogether not that surprising that the surprises began immediately.
“Jenny,” he greeted her with a nod, then tipped his hat fully to the other individual present. “Elder Sheyann. I confess I’m surprised t’see you here.”
“Always a pleasure, Joseph,” the elf replied with a warm smile that made the sentiment sound sincere. He enjoyed every opportunity to converse with elves; their facial expressions were so minutely detailed and varied. Joe wondered whether that was something they did deliberately or just the natural result of living for centuries, but had never thought of a polite way to ask. Elven and prairie folk manners alike emphasized minding one’s own business. “I could hardly pass up the opportunity to see the Shifter off. It is rare enough that we have been blessed to be her neighbors for a few years.”
“The Shifter, huh,” he drawled, turning back to Jenny.
She grimaced. “Morning, Joe. C’mon, Sheyann, you know I hate formalities.”
“We all have our little burdens to bear,” the Elder said with a serene smile. “It has long been a pet peeve of mine when immortals drag well-meaning souls into dangerous business without properly warning them. Perhaps recent events here and in the grove have left me more than usually sensitive to the issue.”
Jenny gave her a mulish look, and received a bland smile in reply.
Joe dutifully absorbed and filed away the layered implications in this exchange but decided the better part of wisdom was not to insert himself into whatever was going on between those two. Instead, he stepped around Jenny and carefully patted the third member of the party on the neck.
The mule turned his head to give Joe a long look, then snorted, shook his mane and went back to staring glumly at the horizon. That was a positive interaction as far as Joe was concerned; the infamously cantankerous Beans was known to greet even people he knew by biting or kicking.
Jenny had hitched him up to a small cart, two-wheeled and comfortably sized for two people to ride in along with the pile of provisions and equipment for an extended camping trip she’d stowed in the back, but not big enough to use as a place to sleep on the trail. Joe looked this whole setup over with a critical eye, then cleared his throat.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Jenny, but does Widow Milwood know her mule—”
“Yes, Joe, I bought him,” she answered, more amused than irked to judge by her tone. “Mrs. Milwood seemed altogether happier to have the doubloons than the mule. Can’t imagine why.” She patted Beans’s haunch; he smacked her with his tail.
“Thank you, Beans,” Elder Sheyann said, bowing to the mule. He snorted at her.
“Right.” Jenny stepped away from him, brushing stray tail hairs off her mouth and giving the elf a wry look. “Look, Sheyann, if you have some kind of problem…”
“This is not how I approach those against whom I bear a grudge,” the Elder interrupted her, still smiling. “I know you well, Jenny, and I know you have no malice. In truth, I trust you more than many of my own tribe who have no excuse for such inconsideration to move carefully among the people of this world. Sometimes, however, a reminder is needful.”
Both of them turned to look at Joe, who straightened his lapels.
“It’s a funny thing I’ve noticed,” he drawled. “Talkin’ with elves, a body can sometimes end up bein’ both the subject of a conversation an’ completely incidental to it.”
“See, you do it too,” Jenny said, nudging Sheyann with an elbow. “Don’t worry, Joe, I promise I’m gonna bring you up to speed on everything.”
“In any case,” Sheyann added, giving him a nod, “I’ve seen to it that you shall have aid on at least part of your journey. It is not impossible that Jenny’s intentions will suffice to draw others to you; such movements are just the sort of thing to ignite the interest of fae spirits, which is how I was forewarned of your intentions. You are leaving more than this town, are you not?”
“Yeah.” Jenny absently patted Beans again, though this time he just shuffled his hooves and ignored her; she had already half-turned to stare off into the distance, where beyond the last outbuildings of Sarasio the endless horizon of the Golden Sea lay. “It’s not something I do often, or lightly, but it’s time to leave this world entirely.”
“Here, now,” Joe said in alarm, “there are some things I will not sign on for! Do I needta sit on you or somethin’?”
“No, no!” she said hastily, turning back to him and raising both hands. “Omnu’s breath, Joe, I’m not killing myself! It’s…well, like I said, I will explain.”
“I’m glad to lend a little aid, and see you off,” Sheyann said, her expression more serious, “but I have my own motivation for being here, Jenny. If something has happened to provoke you to such an extreme measure, particularly this close to my grove, I would hear of it.”
“I doubt you’ll feel any ripples from this once I’ve gone,” Jenny assured her. “No, this is… This one’s my fault, I’m afraid. I’ve been careless. It’s just that the Tiraan Empire is so… It’s not usual.”
She gestured helplessly at the town, as if it were a stand-in for the Empire; Joe raised an eyebrow and peered around, not seeing anything amiss. People were just beginning to be out and about, and many gave curious looks to the trio standing with the mulecart up at the end of the street right where it departed Sarasio itself. None were approaching them yet—save Sheriff Langlin, who emerged from her office and set forth at an unhurried stroll even as he watched.
“Gods know there’ve been bigger empires,” Jenny said, pensive now, “and more powerful ones. But they don’t tend to last so long. It’s been, what, eleven centuries now? And they did it through the strength of their bureaucracies and logistics, not any of the usual things. That, and managing to turn every inevitable collapse so far into a rejuvenation. You just don’t see that very often, historically speaking. I guess Rome was just an outlier, not a complete fluke after all; the method can be repeated. But I’ve just been popping in here and there, going about my business and generally not being a big picture person, and now suddenly I find myself in the middle of a huge country with a thousand years of records collected in a central location with highly motivated people to sift through ‘em, and from there it’s a short jump to somebody taking an unhealthy interest in me. I let myself believe that was done with after the Arachne torpedoed that Ministry of Mysteries bullhockey, but…here we are again.”
“Occasionally useful as Arachne’s outbursts can be,” Sheyann murmured, “it seldom pays to rely on her to properly clean up after herself.”
“Hey, I’m sure she does her best,” Joe protested. Both women turned to give him long looks, and to his great annoyance, he flushed. Turning his back on them, he busied himself with tipping his hat in the direction of the footsteps approaching from behind. “Mornin’, Sheriff.”
“Jenkins. Jenny. Elder.” Langlin gave Sheyann the courtesy of a grave nod, receiving one in return. “’fraid you two might’ve left it too long. I just had my morning tea interrupted by a warning: the guests in town are on the move.”
“Which—aw, no,” Joe grumbled, resting one hand on his wand.
“Yes, I observed this, also,” said Sheyann. “You are wise not to take this lightly, Joseph, but do not worry yourself excessively. I have had my people observing the interlopers, and it seems they have miscalculated the situation.”
“You’ve set elves to spying on Imperial soldiers?” Langlin demanded with an edge to her tone.
“The spirits warned of false intent, bearing arms,” Sheyann replied, unruffled as ever. “Whereof they warn, I heed. Rest assured, Sheriff, it is not my intent to draw the ire of Tiraas, especially after recent events here, but the Empire is a huge and complex beast, rather infamous for not knowing how many hands it has, much less what each of them is doing. I do not believe these men are here reflecting the will of their Emperor.”
“That’s what the Marshal said, too,” Joe murmured to Langlin.
Sheyann nodded. “And I see, Sheriff, that your mind follows a similar current.”
Joe, of course, had already taken note of the additional movement as more of Sarasio’s residents than might ordinarily be out and about with the sun barely gleaming on the horizon were wandering into the streets. He had definitely noted that many of them were armed; Deputy Wilcox, who now strolled up to join them with a courteous tip of his hat, was actually carrying an Army-issue battlestaff.
“Uh, Sheriff? Did you…” Joe waved vaguely around the town. The White Riders were one thing; legitimate or not, he could foresee no good coming from any armed confrontation between townsfolk and Imperial soldiers.
“There’s nothing going on here that warrants invoking my authority to form a civilian posse,” Langlin drawled, tucking her thumbs into her belt. “I also feel no need to keep any secrets about the state of the town. Folks around here do a fine job of looking after themselves and each other.”
By that point he could her more footsteps—these in unison, and accompanied by the crunch of displaced tallgrass, signifying a sizable group marching around the town rather than through it. He couldn’t see them past the buildings yet, but to judge by the progress of the bootsteps they’d be in view within seconds.
“Joe,” Jenny said, quietly but urgently, and he paused in drawing his own wands. “The Avenists say a battle avoided is a battle won by the only ethical means.”
“I thought we established last night you’re not an Avenist,” he muttered back.
“But when it comes to war, you listen to them. I know you’re the best shot on the frontier, but trust me: sit this one out. It’s already won.”
“Hm.” He packed a wealth of doubt into one grunt, but after holding her eyes for a moment, slowly pushed his wands back into their holsters and released them. Sheyann gave him an encouraging nod.
Then they rounded the outlying building, and there was no more time for asides.
There wasn’t much to see, truthfully. If you’d seen one squad of soldiers, you’d seen them all; that was rather the point of uniforms and drills. Joe had seen quite a few Imperial troopers in the last few weeks and had it not been for multiple sources warning him that this batch were up to no good he’d never have taken them for anything different. He took a head count as they marched past the wall of the stables into the space where the main street of Sarasio turned into a trail of dust straggling away into the tallgrass. Twenty-two, one of the standard sizes for an Imperial Army squadron; the way other officers had explained it to Joe, the deployments varied by mission and type of unit, but these looked to be standard infantry, uniformed and each carrying a staff.
They efficiently changed formation on the move, arranging themselves in a double line that effectively blocked off the exit from the town. At this, rather than showing any sign of intimidation, the people of Sarasio began moving more purposefully toward the scene. And not just those out on the street; doors opened and individuals who had to have been watching from behind curtains slipped out and came forward. A lot of them were carrying weapons, too.
Joe held his peace with an effort. If the plan here was to set the locals against the troops… He chose to trust, for now, that Langlin and Sheyann knew their business better than he; they’d both provided enough evidence of it. And clearly there was more going on with Jenny than he’d ever suspected. Still, this looked a lot like everyone involved was angling for a shootout.
One man detached himself from the end of the line and strode forward, a fit-looking fellow with a colonel’s insignia in his middle years with a prominent mustache beginning to go gray in streaks, just bushy enough to conceal his mouth. Joe watched his eyes; the fine muscles surrounding them were often more revealing. This fellow was not happy about what he saw, particularly as he swept his glance across the gathering locals. Then he fixed it on one person.
“Jenny Everywhere.” The colonel projected well, in an accent that hinted at education and more than hinted at the Tiraan heartland down south. “You will come with us.”
“Hush,” Langlin interrupted, patting Jenny heavily on the shoulder as she brushed past. The Sheriff planted herself between the rest of the onlookers and the soldiers, her deputy drifting silently along behind to stand at her shoulder as usual. Riker Wilcox was tall and good at looming ominously, and had no problem letting a woman take the lead; Joe suspected Langlin had deputized him as scenery as much as anything else. “I’m the law in Sarasio…” She made a show of squinting at his shoulder patch. “Colonel. If you’re planning to haul away one of my citizens, show me an arrest warrant.”
The soldier’s eyes narrowed and Joe detected a ruffling in his mustache as he let out a short, sharp breath. Annoyance, based on that and other situational cues.
“With all due respect, Sheriff, my authority supersedes your—”
“No, it doesn’t,” she interrupted, proving she could project as well as he. “An Imperial Marshal can make an arrest on his own authority. In the absence of martial law, which was rescinded in Sarasio four weeks ago, Imperial Army personnel have no such prerogative. Show me a warrant, or come back when you’ve got one.”
The man’s mustache fluttered again, and his grip on the staff he carried tightened. Behind him, a woman wearing captain’s stripes was glowering at the Sheriff; the rest of the soldiers were looking distinctly unhappy. He slowly moved his own hands to rest near, but not on, his wands. Joe didn’t chance a look behind him at the gathering townsfolk but he knew exactly how they would feel about this: the way he did, more or less. Any second, he expected those battlestaves to come up and…
And nothing. The colonel scowled as the silence stretched past tension and into awkwardness, and suddenly Joe understood.
That was why Sheyann had said the soldiers were unprepared, why Jenny said this was already won. This man and his troops had come here expecting to rely on their official presentation and show of force to capture their prey with no interference and, at most, mild physical resistance from Jenny herself, nothing they couldn’t overcome. They had no backup plan, and at the first encounter of a significant hurdle, their commander was left floundering.
The realization was…actually, it was reminiscent. Joe was reminded abruptly of the events of a month ago, when a handful of paladins, demigods, demons, and who knew what else had chosen to refrain from annihilating the White Riders as they easily could, and chosen to act more carefully. To work on the motivations of the people involved, instead of deploying force. The lesson was not entirely welcome, keenly aware as he was that this lay specifically outside his own strengths and, in fact, square in the realm of things with which he struggled.
But while Joe was chewing on that burst of insight, the colonel found his footing.
“The interests of national security trump such niceties, I’m afraid,” he said, gruff with his own irritation. “You may of course file a grievance with Imperial Command after we have left.”
“You’d better believe I’ll be doing exactly that,” Langlin replied. “And you will be leaving without what you came for. In this town, we follow the law. The people of Sarasio have had all they can stomach of bullies with battlestaves.”
The colonel bared his teeth so widely it was actually visible under his mustache. “My mandate does not require me to consult the people of Sarasio, Sheriff. The Tiraan Empire is not a democracy.”
“You know why that is, right?” Jenny piped up suddenly. Ignoring Langlin’s annoyed glance, she clambered onto the seat of the mulecart and stood, immediately making herself the focus of every eye. “Why Tiraas is so dead set against any whiff of democracy, I mean. You know the big secret behind it, the one thing all the nobles understand? It’s something you learn the first time you try to govern any group of people who aren’t having it.”
“I don’t have to listen—”
“Every country is a democracy,” Jenny barreled right over his interruption, grinning down at him. “End of the day? Power is consensus. The people always decide who gets to have it, and they can change their minds. It’s just that most people, most of the time, cannot be assed to vote, whatever political system they live in. The key to staying in power is to encourage that natural apathy. The last thing you want is to have your subjects take a notion to change things up. It’s only when you’ve failed to manage that much that you need to provide ballot boxes. Because once people decide they’re gonna go vote, you’d better let them do it at the polls. Otherwise they’ll do it with their weapons.”
She let the silence hang. All around, hard-eyed citizens of Sarasio had stepped closer and now stood in silence, close to the same numbers as the soldiers and more than two thirds armed.
Then Elder Sheyann pursed her lips and emitted a soft birdcall.
Instantly, blond heads appeared on the roofs all around as fifteen elves who had been lying flat suddenly stood and stared down at the soldiers, blank-faced and aloof as only elves could be. They were not carrying weapons…but they were elves, and no less than seven wore the clear accouterments of tribal shamans. That was enough.
The soldiers held their discipline, but they were suddenly a lot less stern-faced, many of them visibly nervous.
“Don’t call an election, Colonel,” Jenny said into the quiet she had created once she judged it had hung there long enough. “Those favor the incumbent.”
He met her eyes, glowering. “Don’t think you’ll evade the Empire forever, Shifter.” Holding her stare for another pointed moment, he finally turned and made a hand signal.
“Fall in,” the captain barked, and the soldiers stepped back and began to file away with the same impressive discipline as before.
“Colonel,” Sheriff Langlin called as he started to move. The man paused and half-turned to stare at her. “I know a little something about working around the bureaucracy. There’s always a way. If you’d been legitimate, you’d have tried to negotiate. I’ll be making a full complaint and demanding an investigation from Mathenon and ImCom. However long it takes me to write that up and walk to the scrolltower, that’s how long you’ve got to be outta my town and over the horizon. Unless you’re harboring some fool notion about stopping me.”
He stared at her in silence for a heartbeat, then snorted, turned, and strode off after his soldiers. Jenny, Joe, and the rest of the onlookers held still, watching as they filed back out of sight around the corner.
A small hand lightly touched Joe’s upper back, and he turned in surprise. He had, of course, known Sheyann’s position, but elves were usually persnickety about physical contact. The Elder leaned close, pitching her voice low.
“Jenny is a kind soul and a good friend; I have never known her intentions to be less than pure. But you should always be careful around beings who have a different perspective of life than yours. Those who move through time, or space, or worlds, in a way that you cannot will not share your frame of reference when it comes to attachments. For most young men on the cusp of an adventure, I would advise a careful distance from dreams of storybook heroics. In your case, Joseph, remember the stories you have heard, and be mindful of what sort may be unfolding around you. Even such as she may be impelled by greater powers.”
With a final smile, she stepped back and melted away into the crowd before he could respond. Joe glanced up and was unsurprised to see no sign of the elves on the rooftops anymore.
“I hope I don’t have to tell you two that man meant every one of his final words,” the Sheriff stated brusquely, alternating her stare between Joe and Jenny. “You have not seen the last of that—at least, not if you’re planning to head out into the prairie. If you stay in town a while longer—”
“Then the next attempt will be subtler,” Jenny interrupted. “That guy’s not the brains behind this, Sheriff. Whatever this is about, it started down in Tiraas, and I don’t want my business hurting the town. Sarasio’s been through enough.”
“Besides, it’s a pretty short ride to the frontier,” Joe added. “It ain’t like he can track us into the Sea itself. Nothing can.”
Langlin shook her head. “I hope you know what you’re getting into, Jenkins.”
“I am all but positive I haven’t the faintest inkling, Sheriff,” he said ruefully. “But…you know what it is. Some things you gotta do because they’re winnin’ propositions, and some because they just gotta be done. Ain’t always that we’re lucky enough one of ‘em’s both.”
Slowly, she nodded. “Well. I feel a little better, knowing you’ve actually given this some thought. As I just finished explaining, nobody who’s broken no laws is going to be held against their will in my town, so I can’t very well stop you. Just be careful, you two.”
“As much as we possibly can, Sheriff,” Jenny promised. “You can count on that, at least.”
Langlin tugged the brim of her hat, then turned without another word of farewell and headed back up the street toward her office, no doubt to get started on that report she’d declared her intent to make. Abigail Langlin did not issue idle threats.
With a sigh of his own, Joe hopped up onto the cart’s seat while Jenny finally sat down next to him. “All right, if we’re gonna do this harebrained thing, best not dally. Hep hep, Beans!”
He flicked the rains.
Beans swished his tail, laid his ears back, and very slowly turned his neck to give Joe a baleful look with one eye.
“C’mon, Beans, let’s go,” Jenny said in a gentler voice.
The mule snorted, then stepped forward, and in seconds the cart was bumping along the last few yards of road before they turned into prairie.
“Yep,” Joe muttered as they left the town behind, “this is off to a great start.”
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