Jon met her outside the hall as people filed in, one after another. He waved, bouncing on his toes, like a young suitor hoping for a glance from a higher ranking other. Athia snickered to herself, always fond of attention, though not necessarily the person giving it.
“Find anything good?” he asked.
People walked in one by one. Two members of the Tricorn took down names, double checking each other’s work. It turned the process slow and grating, which wore heavy on the locals. Most huddled in on themselves, but those with families stayed close and alert.
As the line thinned, John stepped to the door and turned around. “Where are you staying at, maybe we-“
“Nah, you’re not my type.”
He frowned and said, “ah well, I tried.”
Jon stepped in and glanced back over his shoulder as he walked, “Can you really be sure I’m not? We barely know each other!”
“I’ve got a good idea,” she said with a huff of air through her nose.
“The one that got away,” he said as he went in to take his seat.
More filtered in after him. The messenger woman made up the end of the line. She stopped when she saw Athia.
“Oh, miss, I got your reply in. It’s at the station. If you’d like I’ll get it once this is over.”
“That would be great, thank you.”
The woman walked past. Athia waited on the Tricorn and militia, then went in last. She shut the door behind her and when everyone focused on Meyer, she lifted the rug and checked her work. The circle stayed unbroken and functional.
Either it didn’t show up, in which case they would know exactly who it wasn’t, or it was invited into Galister and joined the other people. She hoped for the first but had no way of knowing. Worse, if it was here now then they gained little. They’d know who all the dead except the lurker’s current disguise. It retained the initiative. Wrestling that away wouldn’t be easy.
Meyer walked up to a podium at the front of the hall. He knocked a hammer against a heavy wood block, making a hollow high pitched thunk. People quieted and turned to him. They stood in small pockets of trust, each its own distinct form afloat the suspicious sea.
“Everyone,” Meyer said. Sweat dripped down his cheek despite the cool air. “Thank you for coming thought it was short notice. We’re working on a census, so we can determine who is still alive and well.” He took a slow breath as his hands went white with his grip on the podium. “We meant to compare those present to names on the register, as we have before, but with everyone in one place. But the register has been destroyed.”
People murmured. Near Meyer, Gar’s face darkened. The lieutenant didn’t know beforehand, Athia figured. Neither did she. A shiver worked down her as she realized how much harder this would be. And it was already hard.
Meyer popped his hammer again. “The documentation was in order up until the last hour. We kept it safe in a locked chest. Those who knew of it were few, so we have a good route from which to start the search. Please understand.” He swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing with gusto. “Now, if anyone is separated from their family, please take this time to stand and announce as much. Whether it be your children, parents, brothers, cousins, or what have you. We need to discern who is not present.”
Gar tensed, his eyes locked on Meyer and his jaw set. People began to move, about fourteen in total. They gathered with whatever relatives they could. Everyone resituated after ten minutes. With that done, anyone missing was announced. People took the chance to say whether they’d seen the missing or not in the last day.
An hour later, they found twelve missing. One of them, a father, read a story to his children just before they left for the hall. He separated from them and his wife to go get his mother who wound up coming alone. Fingers turned to the old woman, a gush of new transgressions that might peg her guilty.
Voices rose and Meyer beat his hammer once more.
“Calm yourself, calm yourselves!” he called “This is not a time to fear one another.”
Someone shouted, “then when is?!”
Meyer wiped his brow, letting sweat fall down his arm and pool in the elbow of his sleeve. “This creature imitates us, but it cannot be us. If we isolate ourselves we make it easier to strike. I propose we cooperate, staying in at least groups of threes at all times-“
Gar stepped forward. “That’s it Meyer? After all this time, and another failure, you suggest we hold hands and travel like children to market?”
Meyer shook his head, “no, no I’m saying-“
Gar’s voice raised and he shoved Meyer aside. “That’s enough of you, minister. We are not playing your games. Right now, the safety of this town comes first.” He took the podium, slick from Meyer’s palms. A Tricorn pulled Meyer back out of sight so he couldn’t interrupt.
Athia began a walk around the perimeter of the hall.
“Citizens of Olstin,” he said, with a bellow of authority. “I am implementing a strict curfew beginning today. Any outside past dark, without my express permission, will be jailed for one week with no recourse. Those who cannot or do not work right now are to join the militia and begin training at dawn. Failure to report will result in one week in jail without recourse.”
Mutterings went out among the people, until Gar slammed the hammer down.
“If we want to survive this, we must be strong and we must be prepared. Accordingly, all men and women over the age of fifteen will be armed by the end of tomorrow.”
He wet his lips as he continued. “A warding symbol was placed in the doorway. Everyone in town has walked through it to no effect, meaning the creature was invited.”
People clamored for weapons, cheers came out as the first batch began to circulate to those closest to the front.
Athia’s walk turned to a sprint that grabbed attention.
“There is at least one traitor among us or the Socratians, beyond just the lurker. We must put an end to this.”
Athia jumped up on to the platform, next to the podium. “I need to speak with you in the back,” she said, voice low.
“You’ve done your job, and you can wait until I’m done before consulting further.”
“Do you realize what you just did?”
“Will you scold me for telling the truth?” he asked. “I’ll have this solved within the week, no one else will die.”
Her voice came out a sharp hiss, “step into the back so we can talk in private.”
“No, no I don’t think I will.”
Her teeth clenched. “You moron,” she said through her teeth. Her gaze turned to the people, “they’ll-“
Gar slapped her as she looked away. And people noticed.
“Road worn mercenary trash. You’re talking to an officer of the Tricorn, girl.”
Athia’s eyes fixed on him, dark and piercing. Her hands turned to fists, so tight her arms shook, but she kept a thread of control. Just enough to stop herself from striking back. She wanted to, near needed it, but that would only sooth her ego. Getting herself thrown out of town, unjust or not, wouldn’t help these people. And there would be time to settle scores later.
She turned to the people and raised her voice. “Thank you! Thank you, Lieutenant Gar!”
He eyed her, hesitating.
Athia swallowed down her anger, at least for now. “I’ve always wondered what it was like to be married to an officer of the Tricorn.”
She hopped off the podium in case he tried to grab her.
Her comment broke the tension. A few laughed, but most gawked, their confusion at the display enough to bring a small pause to the moment. They watched her as she paced in front of the people.
“But now I need to get to work.” She eyed the people, making a show of her intense gaze while her concentration stayed on Gar. When he made not move to have her tossed out, she jumped back on the platform so everyone could see her.
“I am Athia Fensa, slayer of lurkers and saver of people. Bringing you all here, through the circle, was my idea. And, right now, I’m sure the creature is among you. Looking at me right now.”
She held out her arms, “to you, skulk, I say I will be the one to slay you. I don’t know what form you take right now, what machination you have for these people, but it doesn’t matter. Because I know what you are, and I know how you think.”
Athia’s hands lowered and her right one pointed out among the people. She needed the initiative.
“Reprisal, oh how delicious it would be to do something drastic and undercut me here.” She put on a grin as best he could. “But you’re in a tricky spot now. We know who’s been taken and can’t be walking about the city, if you swap from your current form to a previously stolen one, no one will fall for it. Thanks to the Mayor’s exercise a little bit ago.”
Her stomach churned as she hoped she’d be right about this, but she kept confidence on her face and in her voice.
“The Mayor, Gar, and I have agreed to hold these meetings every night. We’ll have the name of anyone you’ve taken each and every day. You can’t travel here in silence anymore, so long as everyone agrees to work together like this.”
She stared out at them, earning quiet nods.
“And sure, be armed, but none of you can take the creature alone. The Mayor is right, stick to groups of three or more, so you can never be caught alone. That is all we have for you now. Stay together, watch out for each other. Do this and I will slay it for you.”