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Joe ambled down the main street of Sarasio, aware that he was playing right into a chapbook cliché but having made his peace with it. He liked to amble, liked to take his time and take in the movements of the town, greeting people, stopping to chat, noting all the repairs and new construction going on, seeing who was new in the village. To accomplish all this, it was either walk slowly with an unmotivated gait that encouraged people to interrupt his constitutional, or sit in a rocking chair on a porch like somebody’s grampa. Sitting around was just not in his nature, so ambling it was.
“Jenkins,” Sarasio’s new face of law and order acknowledged as she fell into step beside him.
“Sheriff,” Joe said politely, tipping his hat. He approved mightily of Sheriff Abigail Langlin, recently appointed by the governor down in Mathenon in an act which proved the man actually did understand what the frontier town needed. Langlin was a Westerner by blood, somewhat unusual in this area, but her name and accent showed her to be frontier stock. A hard woman with perpetually steely eyes and the severe demeanor of a schoolmarm, she was nonetheless a listener, attentive to everyone who required a bit of her time and slow to take action until she was certain of having all the facts—at which point she would knock a troublemaker on his ass in the street before he knew what was happening. It’d have been nice if the governor had bothered to send Sarasio one of his best people before he had the Emperor breathing down his neck over it, but Joe and the rest of the townsfolk had decided to take what they were offered without kicking up more fuss.
“Been down to the Rail station?” she asked as they ambled in tandem.
“Not since gettin’ the paper this mornin’,” he replied, equally terse, and equally without tension. Another thing he appreciated about Sheriff Langlin was how she treated him: the woman was visibly unimpressed by the legend of the Sarasio Kid, but also didn’t talk down to the town’s fifteen-year-old self-appointed protector, once she was satisfied he preferred to let her do her job without any interference. They shared the laconic rapport of people who had been through some shit and didn’t care to chitchat about it. He was rather curious about her backstory, but of course asking would defeat the purpose. “I’m just out for a walk before the night’s work. Spent more’n enough time indoors, last few months. Anything good arrive today? Or at least interesting?”
She grunted. “Interesting, maybe. The usual load of louts, disaster tourists and…” Langlin curled her lip in disdain. “…adventurers passing through. I reckon a fair few of those’ll be waiting at the Shady Lady to lose their entire purses to the famous Sarasio Kid at the poker table.”
“Same as it ever was,” he quipped. “Though I make it a point not to take somebody’s entire purse unless I’m pretty sure they can afford it.”
“Yeah, well, about the same proportion as always won’t handle losing with any grace. I expect you to keep it civil, Joe.”
“Really, ma’am?” He cast her a sidelong look of reproach. “I know you ain’t been in town long, but surely you’ve cottoned that I don’t start fights.”
“That is not something I’m worried about, no. I don’t need you finishing fights, either, Joe. Not as hard as I know you’re capable of doing it, and not to the kind of trash who are not worth the paperwork it’ll cause me.”
“Not my style, Sheriff. Some o’ the new folks get a mite ornery, it’s true, but those me an’ the girls can’t talk down we can at least manage to delay until somebody can fetch you or the deputy. Which… I’d’a thought you knew that, too. Or is there somebody in today’s batch you’re especially concerned about?”
“Not them,” she murmured, eyes ceaselessly scanning the street as they passed. There was nothing amiss, just townsfolk, a handful of laborers and functionaries sent by Tiraas and Mathenon to help get the village back on its feet, and a few visiting elves. More elves had decided to be sociable with the people of Sarasio since the event with the White Riders and the Last Rock folk. Joe suspected Elder Sheyann’s hand behind that. “There’ve been some other arrivals today who concern me more. We got another detachment of troops. Looks like a single squad.”
“Huh. I thought all the soldiers went back to the capital with the prisoners.”
“Me, too,” she replied, her tone grimmer than usual. “They’re camping out by the new scrolltower site rather than quartering in the town, and their commanding officer hasn’t troubled to notify me what they’re here for.”
Joe narrowed his eyes. “I ain’t exactly a hundred percent on the legalities there, Sheriff. Shouldn’t they at least check in with you?”
“The law doesn’t require it,” she said noncommittally, “but yeah, it’s…an expected courtesy. To the point that the lack of it is noteworthy. Feels borderline…pointed.”
“Hm. Not sure how I feel about soldiers hangin’ around bein’ specifically discourteous, Sheriff. The last batch were the very model of professionalism.”
“I definitely don’t need you poking your wand into them, Joe.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, ma’am.”
“Good.” She nodded once, though it might have been in reply to the passing man who tipped his hat politely to them. “I did get a visit from another interesting person. An Imperial Marshal who declined to discuss his business with me in detail, but asked after you.” Langlin glanced at him sidelong. “And after Miss Jenny.”
He slowly raised his eyebrows. “Me…and Jenny? Huh.”
“You can’t think of anybody in the Imperial government who’d take an interest in the two of you?”
“Can’t say as I can, Sheriff,” Joe said with an apologetic grimace. “I don’t know anybody connected to the Imperial government except Heywood. No idea at all why anybody from the capital’d be interested in Jenny.”
“Paxton, right,” she nodded. “Cheerful, middle-aged, shaped like a pumpkin. This guy is not him. Not forthcoming about his business, either, but that’s what I know as it presently stands.”
“I appreciate the heads up, ma’am.”
“Wasn’t purely for your benefit,” she replied in a warning tone. “So no, Joe, I don’t expect any misbehavior from you, or necessarily from the new layabouts passing through. But, I smell politics. I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s got strings tied to the capital, and at least one of ‘em’s interested in you. I’ll ask you to step very carefully until this situation either reveals itself or goes away.”
“My word on it, Sheriff,” he promised, stopping and turning to her, then tipping his hat. “I can do discreet, no trouble. Anything else interesting that pops up, I’ll let you know.”
“Good man,” she said approvingly, nodding back. “You do that. I’ll let you get to…work, then. Be safe, Joe.”
“You too, Sheriff,” he replied with a grin, not rising to the little jab about his work. They had paused in front of the Shady Lady, where he was about to spend his evening the way he did most evenings: playing poker and winning, mostly at the expense of out-of-towners who failed to realize that throwing down with the Sarasio Kid at the card table was as much a losing proposition as doing it in the street.
They parted ways, he heading into the bordello, she continuing on her rounds, and he wondered for a moment if it was significant that she’d seen fit to warn him but not come in and say the same to Jenny, but then he was inside and taking stock.
The Shady Lady was a much different place from the makeshift fortification full of refugees it had been during the months when the White Riders had held Sarasio in the grip of terror, when the bordello had been protected only by his residence there, and the fact that the lawlessness the Riders themselves had introduced meant he could have massacred the lot of them with no fear of interference from any government or other entity. So they hadn’t gone near the Lady while he was present, and after it had suffered one ugly attack when he ventured out to go looking for them, he hadn’t dared to leave it again. That bitter stalemate had held until Tellwyrn herself had appeared out of nowhere with a bunch of heroes right out of a bard’s tale.
Looking back, Joe’s perception of the Last Rock posse in hindsight was somewhat surprising. They were a way overpowered group to use against what amount to a few bandits, they broadly seemed to have bumbled about with a distressing lack of any clue what they were doing—a disappointing thing to have observed after he’d dared to hope a group of proper adventurers would mean an end to Sarasio’s troubles. And, in the end, they hadn’t solved the problem like adventurers, exactly. Rather than rounding up and stomping out the White Riders, they had rallied the town and the elves, done as much to heal what was wrong with Sarasio as defend it.
That had impressed him more than anything else. He still pondered it often.
Now, the Shady Lady was back in business, which was to say raucous, bawdy, and fun. Not that the kind of fun that went on here was Joe’s cup of tea, exactly, but he was attached to the place. Half-dressed women were draped over various pieces of furniture and those of the patrons who looked like they had money to spend. Some of the crowd was clearly rough around the edges, but there were two burly men in suits with wands and cudgels lurking by the door—and now that Joe was here, there was even less danger of anybody mistreating one of the employees. The piano was blasting a spritely melody, which was slightly uncomfortable for Joe because ever since yesterday it was in need of tuning. Not enough that anyone else would notice, yet, which just made it worse.
Joe had to pause just inside, not to add drama to his entrance, but just to orient himself and parse the glut of data that washed over him. Fortunately he had enough practice at this that the room arranged itself in his mind fairly quickly, fast enough most of those present would likely not have noticed more than a momentary hesitation.
The temperature of the room and how it varied by the concentrations of bodies in different spots. Volume, intonation, and speed of delivery of thirty-three different voices. The differing proximities of different bodies to one another, and what it signified about their interactions. The minutiae of fine movements in facial muscles that expressed emotion; the less neatly organized details of body language which he had also studied carefully but did not yet have down to so precise a science. Details, details, details. Data.
In his father’s research and correspondence with professionals up in the dwarven kingdoms, Joe’s pa had found that his condition, the way he processed information differently and seemed to lack the innate grasp of social interaction that humans were supposed to have from birth, was a known phenomenon. The other thing, his gift, the way he perceived everything about the physical world in hard numbers, was something different—possibly related, not completely unheard of but altogether far less common. He’d learned to use the one to compensate for the other, with the result that while learning to read a room had taken him years and the effort had been exhausting, now that the effort was done he could read people—individually and in groups—with a degree of precision that far more sensitive and intuitive types couldn’t seem to manage.
There were still wide gaps in his perceptions where he had to conjecture. When it came to people, there was always more studying to do. Wands were easy; people were not nonsensical as he had first believed as a young child, just hellaciously complex. There were just so many variables, and even now that he had grasped—mostly—the overall patterns he was always finding new ones he didn’t yet understand.
Upon taking in the Shady Lady’s common room and getting it properly sorted in his mind, Joe’s first observation was that there was only one detail at present which required a response from him, and that was the man at his table.
Joe’s table was sacrosanct. The Shady Lady’s employees shooed customers away even when the place was as busy as tonight; you did not sit down to play cards with the Kid unless you were invited, and that only happened if you impressed the Kid as being either an interesting opponent, or loaded enough to be worth taking to the cleaners. Now, there was a man sitting there—not in his seat, at least—dressed in a perfectly nondescript hat and coat. He might have been anybody passing through a frontier town like this, except that he was sitting there. Others might have helped themselves to a seat where they were unwelcome; what made this stick out in Joe’s mind was that the staff weren’t saying anything to him about it.
Thus, before approaching the interloper, he stopped to conduct a quick visual survey of the employees. Horace was at the bar and Sandy on the piano, where they belonged. The bouncers were in the correct positions, one watching the door, the other atop the stairs where he could see the floor and swiftly reach either it or any of the private rooms if he perceived a need. That neither had reacted to the man at Joe’s table meant they discerned no threat. Most of the girls were occupied entertaining customers; those who could spare the attention shot smiles and waves his way, and three glanced fleetingly at the table. So it wasn’t magic deflecting their attention, they had been aware of this situation and decided a reaction was not necessary.
He focused on the final employee, who to judge by the way she was immediately making a beeline toward him, was probably about to explain the situation.
“Jenny,” he said, tipping his hat.
“You with the manners,” the bordello’s waitress chided, swatting him on the arm. Jenny specifically was only a waitress, the only female member of the staff who offered no services beyond food and drinks. She was definitely not dressed like any of the other girls, wearing a shirt and trousers, boots and a long jacket. Even so, occasionally one of the out-of-town patrons would try to pat her on the butt, and immediately learned that Jenny did not slap people: she punched. She punched with the force of a kicking donkey and the surgical precision of an Omnist monk, and anybody Jenny felt the need to lay out on the floorboards would not be going upstairs with any of the girls, assuming Bruce and Tanner didn’t decide to summarily toss his ass bodily into the street. There were rarely any problems.
“Manners are miniature morals,” Joe recited. “So, what’ve we got goin’ on over there?”
“Yeah, step carefully, Joe,” she said, the levity fading from her expression as she glanced over at the intruder, who was positioned so that he could certainly see them talking but was just sipping a whiskey and playing solitaire, showing no outward reaction to anything else in the room. “That’s a silver gryphon. He’s asking about you, specifically.”
“Ah hah,” Joe said, studying the man more closely. He maybe looked more Tiraan than Stalweiss; otherwise, no identifying features whatsoever. In Joe’s experience, people were never so bland except on purpose. That was the trouble with Imperial Marshals; they might be police officers, tax assessors, or Intelligence agents, or anything else answerable only to the central government in Tiraas and licensed to exercise deadly force in his Majesty’s name. Something told Joe it wasn’t an accountant or cop he was dealing with here. “Speak of the Dark Lady. I was just this minute havin’ a talk with the Sheriff about a new Marshal in town. She says he was askin’ about me, and also you.”
“Shit,” Jenny mumbled, and he winced but knew better by now than to chide her out loud.
“Take it easy,” he murmured. “If the man’s askin’ politely and waitin’ at ease for a sit-down, it’s probably nothin’…too serious.”
“Sometimes you are just too precious for this world.”
He gave her a look, and she made a face back at him.
“Well, standin’ out here ain’t gettin’ us any answers,” he said reasonably. “I believe I won’t keep our guest waitin’ any longer’n necessary. You wanna come with or let me size ‘im up first?”
“Screw that, if he’s after me I’m gonna find out what the hell he wants,” she said, reaching up to adjust the goggles she wore atop her head. Joe had never actually seen her put them over her eyes; she skillfully deflected any questions about them.
He nodded to her, and led the way over to his table.
“Good evening,” the man sitting there said cordially, sweeping up his deck of cards mid-game as Joe pulled out a seat for Jenny. “And you must be Mr. Jenkins!”
“Guess I must be,” Joe replied, settling into his own chair and ignoring Jenny’s wry look. “Everybody else seems t’be accounted for.”
The man grinned at him and casually adjusted the lapel of his coat with one hand, momentarily turning it just enough to reveal the shape of a silver gryphon badge pinned inside. “Marshal Task, pleasure to meet you.”
“Task,” Joe repeated. “Really?”
“Really, legally, and on paper. Everywhere that matters, anyway.” Task’s grin only widened. “First things first: let me assuage your worries a bit. This is not an official visit.”
“Pardon me, mister, but you need t’get out more if you think an unofficial visit from an Imperial Marshal is less worrisome than the other kind.”
Task actually chuckled at that, shaking his head. “Well, I suppose I see your point. I’m rather accustomed to it being the other way ‘round, but then you’ve had rather a run of bad luck out here lately, haven’t you? I can imagine the government’s not in a good odor in Sarasio these days. In any case, to be more specific, I sought you out at the request of a mutual friend, one Heywood Paxton of the Imperial Surveyor Corps.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jenny said before Joe could reply, staring closely at the Marshal. “How’s Heywood doing? When he left here he was all a-twitter about marrying that sweetheart of his back home. You know how young men are. No offense, Joe.”
Joe just nodded to her. He had absolutely no idea why she would say such a pile of nonsense, and therefore kept his mouth shut and his face blank until he caught up. Everyone whose opinion he’d ever respected had advised listening rather than speaking when in doubt.
Task just smiled at her, a more knowing expression. “Heywood is in his fifties, has grandchildren, and wears trousers sized for two of you, miss. Or at least he used to; first time I saw how much weight he’d lost I was afraid for his health for a moment, but in fact he’s more energetic than I ever remember him being. What happened in Sarasio seems to have lit a fire in his belly. That was a good thought, Miss Everywhere, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t have helped you much if I were trying to put one over on you. A professional—such as myself—wouldn’t invoke the name of a mutual acquaintance unless he knew at least that much detail.”
Jenny grimaced. “I prefer Ms. I’m an Avenist, you know.”
“Humble apologies,” Task said gravely.
Joe continued keeping his mouth shut. Jenny had never revealed her surname, but… Everywhere? He was confused, and therefore, silently observant.
“Heywood came across some information during his oversight of the post-Rider cleanup of Sarasio,” Task continued, “or rather the parts of it happening on paper in Tiraas. I think you two are in a better position to speak to the more physical parts of the process. But this particular matter is something which he felt you ought to know, and which he was constrained from notifying you of through official channels. Thus, he called in a favor.” The Marshal smiled and sipped his whiskey. “And here I am.”
“Here you are,” Joe repeated.
“Are you perhaps aware of the small detachment of Imperial soldiers that arrived today?”
Jenny’s eyes widened. Joe just nodded once.
“The Sheriff just mentioned that t’me, in fact.”
Task nodded back. “How much do you know about the composition of the Imperial army?”
“How about instead a’ playin’ twenty questions you just tell me the part that’s important?” Joe suggested.
That prompted a good-humored grin from the Marshal. “Fair enough! Okay, since the reorganization after the Enchanter Wars, the Army by law has to be composed of one third levies from the various House guards. These soldiers are under the direct command of the Throne, and trained and outfitted by the Imperial government, though the Houses are expected to be financially responsible for their share. It was conceived as a way for the aristocrats to limit the military capability of the central government. Starting in Theasia’s reign, Imperial Command has put in place a policy of very deliberately moving these troops around and never stationing House levies in the domains of their own backers. That neatly accomplished her goal of impeding the Houses from formenting insurrection within the Army itself, and these days most wouldn’t even think to try that; modern aristocrats would rather play economic games than risk coming to blows with each other, much less the Throne itself. But it has caused the additional problem that scattered through the entire Imperial Army are units of troops whose first loyalty isn’t to the Emperor.”
“Ohhh, I don’t like where this is going,” Jenny whispered.
“As well you shouldn’t,” Task agreed. “ImCom does its best to keep things orderly, and General Panissar runs a tighter ship than his predecessor, but any large bureaucratic institution has cracks which things can slip through, and people embedded who know exactly how to make such slippage happen. I believe the Eserites have a saying about this.”
“You’re tellin’ us these troops ain’t here on the Emperor’s orders,” Joe said.
Task nodded. “They’ll have all the requisite paperwork and orders, and the groundwork will have been laid back at Command to explain their presence here. But no, Mr. Jenkins, this squadron is not here on the Emperor’s business, nor General Panissar’s command. It’s not unusual for a provincial governor to pull strings and get a favored unit of theirs assigned a plum position, but Heywood was alarmed by this because of how byzantine the chain of orders and requisitions was that made this happen. These lads are from Upper Stalwar Province, originally, but he can’t figure out who sent them here, or why.”
“And ImCom can’t just recall them because…?” Jenny prompted.
“Couldn’t tell you,” Task admitted. “Nor could Heywood, or he’d have done that first. I’ve verified it wasn’t Imperial Intelligence that put them here, either, and I’m afraid that’s as far as I’m willing to stick my neck out. My agency has policies in place about free agents interfering with complex matters on our own time. I’ve notified my superiors, and been authorized to watch, but…that’s it.” He shrugged fatalistically. “Heywood Paxton, in addition to being a good friend, is a loyal Emperor’s man through and through. He doesn’t care for playing politics, but is able to do it, as any good government functionary must be. So when he asks for a favor, I can be confident that it is not against the interests of the Throne or the Empire as a whole, and he considered it important enough to circumvent the bureaucracy. Thus, the warning he requested I bring you two in particular: the only thing he or I have been able to suss out about this squad on such short notice is that immediately before they were abruptly diverted out here, someone else, working through the same unusually labyrinthine chain of steps designed to conceal their point of origin, pulled the government’s entire files on one Jenny Everywhere, last known to be in Sarasio, Mathena.” He met her eyes, his expression as grave as hers was suddenly sickly. “I got a chance to sneak a glance at those files. That’s quite a story there, ma’am. It’s my belief whoever’s looking for you is someone playing on a level that even you had better take seriously.”
“Thanks,” she whispered.
Task nodded, tucked his deck of cards in the pocket of his coat, and tossed back the last of his drink. “Heywood doesn’t consider you any threat to the Empire. Nor do I—nor, according to the documents ImCom and Intelligence have, does anyone who has an inkling what they’re talking about. By simple process of elimination, then, the source of this interest wants you for their own purposes, not to protect the Empire. By the same token, you are not, strictly speaking, an Imperial subject, and nobody legitimate will spend government resources coming to your aid. The best way Heywood could look out for you, Jenny, was by making sure you and Mr. Jenkins here know to watch your back, and try to untangle the paper trail to figure out whose idea all this was. He’s still working on the second part, but… I have to tell you, I’m not optimistic. I know a paper trail skillfully designed to lead nowhere when I see one. In my professional opinion, those answers are only going to come from the officer in charge of those troops.” He winked and finally stood up. “Not, of course, that I would ever suggest you employ any kind of aggressive persuasion against an officer of his Majesty’s armed forces.”
“Perish the thought,” Joe said quietly.
“I’m gonna hang around town for a few days, keep an eye on this. But unless somebody does something outright treasonous… Keeping an eye is all I can do for you. Best of luck.”
The Marshal tugged the brim of his hat, then sauntered away from the table toward the front doors in no particular hurry, leaving them simmering in a thick and heavy silence.
“I never knew you were an Avenist,” Joe finally said after forty-five seconds in which Jenny just frowned at the table.
She looked up, and smiled ruefully. “That was…a little joke. I guess you could best describe me as an agnostic. Though I’ve done the most work by far for Vesk.”
Joe noted the phrasing, and said nothing. Not because he didn’t have questions; on the contrary, he wasn’t sure which one to ask first.
While he dithered, Jenny drew in a breath and squared her shoulders. “Joe, I’m in the uncomfortable position of needing to ask you for a big favor, and not being able to explain all of why.”
“We’re friends,” he replied, grateful to be back in the realm of correct answers and not looming unknowns. “I’ve got your back. What’s up?”
Jenny smiled gratefully. “Well, I think it’s time for me to leave town.”
“That’s startin’ to sound like a pretty solid idea,” he agreed.
“And I think I’m gonna need some help getting to where I need to go. It’s…well, difficult country.”
“Golden Sea difficult.”
He nodded slowly. “Okay. How far in are we goin’?”
“All the way.” She held his gaze, intently watching his reaction. “To the center.”
Joe regarded her in silence for several more seconds while gathering his thoughts before he answered.
“Okay. How, uh… How much can you explain?”