A member of the militia joined with Athia as she walked out towards the Socratian camp. An hour remained before the town meeting, and she planned on using it. The militiaman, Jon, tapped a spear on his shoulder while they walked. He volunteered, young and excited to see a new face coming to help. Of all the people in Galister, only Athia could assure she was real.
Jon wore cheap armor, hard oak with thin leather wrappings. The blocks knocked as the man bounced on his heels with each step. He lost two fingers on his left hand, the pinky and ring finger, in a plowing accident as a child. Which he told with mirth.
“Not really sure how it happened that the pinky came out with more left. The other is gone, and the rest are fine.”
She said, “funny how life happens sometimes.”
“If the Tricorn hired you, you must be really good. What’s your plan? How are you going to catch it?”
“Can’t speak too much to that,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “But trust I know what I’m doing.”
They reached the Socratians, most of them huddled around a campfire and whispering in their native tongue. Loiys’s northern neighbor long stood as a rival, but now both sat broken. The Socrac’s civil war went far better than the Einarr’s.
In their tongue, Athia said, “hail, do any of you speak Losian?”
Jon asked, “wait you speak their language?”
“Enough to embarrass myself,” she said a half smile.
A middle aged Socratian came forward, darker with a soft tone and androgynous form. Common among them.
They said, in Losian, “hello. You aren’t of the Tricorn?”
She shook her head. “Sure not. I just have a few questions.”
“I’m Athia Fensa,” she held out a hand.
“Samal,” the Socratian said, meeting her hand with callouses.
Behind Samal, the others stayed close and quiet. They wore simple, ragged robes with little adornment and kept their hair shoulder length. A group near the fire’s light worked on sewing with needles in practiced motions.
Bronze caste, Athia realized. “I thought most the Socratians that left were the upper class?”
“Most,” Samal said. “But many found no place to go.”
Athia rubbed the back of her head, feeling a bit silly about her comment. “Well, anyway, do you know anything that might help me in finding this lurker?”
Samal shook their head. “We’ve kept a close eye on each other and said our prayers, all anyone can do in these times.”
Athia bit back a question, but Samal spotted it and said, “prayers to the Shepherd, of course. We’ve long since given up on the Watcher. Those of us among the bronze held little love for it before, and I assure you we have none now.”
“Sorry, but I ask the same things of everyone.”
She wet her lower lip and leaned forward. “If you see or hear anything. And I mean anything, come to me first if you can.”
“Should I not trust the other two?” Samal asked, words slow and measured.
“I don’t think either one is the imposter,” she said, “but I promise to be fair with you.”
“We will hold you to that.”
She gave a thumbs up. “Good, I prefer it that way. We’re having a large gathering, of everyone, at the hall. I would prefer if you came first, early, then left before the rest.”
“May I ask why?”
Athia glanced at Jon who busied himself with the wax in his ears. She gestured Samal off to the side and leaned in close.
“I’ve put a protective sigil down, that repels lurkers. I want everyone to walk through to see if it merely infiltrated or was invited. I need you all to step through it, and I think it would be easier for you to go first. If everyone passes, I can relay that to the townsfolk after.”
A second passed, then Samal said, “that would be prudent. Thank you.”
“Keep this secret,” she added. “Better not to say too much unnecessarily.”
“I will not. And I will gather my comrades, we’ll go now.”
“What will you tell them?”
“That they are conducting a census and would prefer to count us before all the others.”
She nodded, “thank you. Be safe.”
They stepped apart and Athia walked over to Jon. “Run ahead and tell them the Socratians are coming in first, for the census.”
He squinted, then nodded. “Yep, I’ll do it.” Then he leaned forward with a dopey little grin, “you got something planned huh? Must’ve told that Socrac person something good if you convinced them to come just like that.”
“It’s been hard to convince them before?”
Jon shrugged, “they’re skittish. That’s all. Nice enough folk otherwise.”
“Good to know, now relay that for me. I want to look over a few things around here.”
Jon saluted and left at a good pace.
Athia counted the Socratians as they walked to the hall. Twenty-four in total, eight children and the rest adults. People eyed them as they walked but kept a safe distance. Anyone who genuinely thought the lurker among them would be smart enough not to provoke them. No need in that risk.
She turned to walk through the town. Water came in through piping that led from a nearby river. Few of the buildings got water into them, instead communal toilets and baths took up a stretch of Galister along the wall beside the Socratians. A weak smell of waste wafted from it, no worse than the usual smells of any city. Further past, an ice maker’s shop siphoned off water and, with symbolism, turned it into bricks for people’s ice chests. The more extravagant locals even used it, and lesser versions of the same symbolcraft to cool their homes.
An older woman tended to the messenger station by the front gate. She sent and received word through her coin portals, secure in her small but sturdy shelter. Lack of trade meant the butcher closed his doors while the general trader kept a sign hanging of the few goods he could still sell.
Curiosity pulled Athia over to the messenger station. The older woman eyed her like she might a possum at her door.
“Can I help you?”
Athia leaned against the counter, under cover of a small awning connected to the station. “I just was let in today, here to help with the problem. Tell me, are you still able to get food into here?” She held up her writ for emphasis.
If the place was in lockdown, no one would know more about such things than the messenger.
“Yes,” she said. “Not often, but we’ve been arranging it from Olstin. Minister Meyer has been on top of it.”
Athia considered that the woman might be the imposter. It would be a prime spot to take, as this woman wielded so much power. Yet, it was also noticeable, much harder to go about killing while handling a job this important. Still, she needed to test her.
She paid to send a letter, addressed to Lea. It read, “Things are progressing well here, arrived a few hours ago. Have a lead but can’t say much now. Just, could you send me some info on bog-skulks. PS, with Kamil you’re usually on top, aren’t you?”
No imposter could fake the answer to that last one. Not that the creature couldn’t fake an answer. If it sent the letter, got the answer, and then altered it to cut out useful information, she’d be none the wiser. Except she knew what Lea would send her in response to both questions.
Once she got that letter, she’d have an answer on the messenger. Simple enough.
Her attention swept back over Galister. Where to start? How to start? The skulk knew the place better than her, stole decades of knowledge about it. Centuries maybe, between all the minds it took. For a moment, she considered that there might not even be a bog-skulk. Multiple murders happened elsewhere, and not because of lurkers. It could be that a person went about killing and were just very good at it.
Very possible, so she’d keep it in consideration. Though it wouldn’t explain the difficulty in figuring out who was dead. She made another once through of the town, walking and watching. It helped her make a mental layout of the place. At any moment she might need to go flying through the town to help someone, or to chase a monster. And she needed to know what was where, for when it came time to search.