The slain man lived in a hovel converted from a stable. It once served an inn attached to it, but that inn became a bakery and no longer needed to house horses. Outside it, a cat toyed with a mangled bird. People worked in the bakery, but flour ran thin as they awaited the next shipment.
Athia sent a group of Tricorn with the brothers to check the other homes connected by near rooves. She didn’t imagine much left to find. Better to let them handle it while she checked into other avenues. And she still needed to talk with their suspect before it grew late.
“Nice place,” Clare said.
Tana kept her spear in a firm grip. She used the butt to push open the door. Her eyes stayed forward as she led the way inside, Athia right behind.
One room with no furniture outside the bed. Impoverished simplicity, a fence for the rain and Suns. The blanket stretched from the straw bed toward the door, twisted and dusted in dirt from the floor. A stool sat next to a hearth, built from small uncut stones that might fall to pieces with a shove.
Athia poked her head into the hearth and glanced up the chimney. All clear. Her help picked through the man’s meager things. Took seven minutes to go through it twice. Nothing showed up and Athia stuck her head out the small window.
“Thought I might find something,” Athia said, rubbing her boot heels into the ground. She moved her jaw back and forth, wondering.
Tana tapped her spear to the ground. “What now, Ms. Fensa?”
“Athia,” Athia said. “Now we go question our suspect. Unless one of you have a better idea.”
Clare shook her head.
Tana asked, “at this point, our goal is more about making it harder for the lurker to act, right?”
“Our goal is to stop it, but right now the clearest path forward is to make it harder to act,” Athia answered.
Clare said, “like placing snares. Find the critter’s runs and alter them a bit, so they’re more likely to run through your trap.”
“But, until we catch it,” Tana said, “people keep dying.” Her eyes settled on Athia, hoping to be corrected, told she was wrong.
Athia looked back out the window. A small bird swooped in and landed on the ground. It pecked away at old breadcrumbs on an abandoned plate, occasionally looking up at her as it did.
She didn’t want to admit Tana spoke the truth, as much as Tana didn’t want to hear it. Athia wanted to save people, she didn’t like taking actions to minimize instead of prevent.
“Athia?” Tana asked.
“We’re going to catch it, soon.”
They departed, headed for the town hall down empty street. People watched them from their windows and cracked doors, like clams as the tide receded.
Galister traded its people for eyes, suspicious and hidden. The path forward narrowed, as if the town shrunk in its emptiness. Every corner felt too close, like something could reach her from every little nook. And while it could reach her, she couldn’t grasp it in turn.
A town of half glimpsed eyes and a fog of anxiety. Athia walked through it like oil in water. She tried to think of new avenues to pursue, some way she could resolve this before anyone else died. The only thing that might work would be tossing everyone in their own cages and waiting it out, but that was a pointless thought. It would never be doable. Who would insure everyone was fed? Athia alone? What if it avoided capture, hid in some quiet place, and resumed after the plan failed?
It couldn’t be scared, reasoned with, bought, or dissuaded. The creature would fulfill its purpose until dead. A divine force, a harbinger of the Unseen. If only they still had the Watcher, Whose eyes would fall upon the town with a word, and who would burn away the rot.
But, perhaps, the Watcher did that for the same reason It betrayed humanity, keep people from learning with an easier answer. The Shepherd would keep out all the other nasty things, but She once let in, She left it to the people. They let it in, and they must send it out. Maybe, as an outsider, Athia shouldn’t be here trying to help.
She shoved that thought away when they reached the hall. Clare greeted one of the guards with, “how’s the kid, Ro?”
The man wet his lower lip and said, “better.”
When they passed him, Clare whispered, “Ro’s son is sickly, been hard on them with supplies being tight.”
“I can imagine.”
Gar met them at the stairway to the dungeons. Three of his veterans joined as retinue, all hard faced and bow-taut. Their lieutenant said, “Meyer couldn’t get information. One of my own are about to interrogate him. Wait here or you’ll be a bother.”
“The Mayor said no torture.”
“Lives are on the line.”
Athia stepped forward. She stretched and stood just a hair on her toes to add a bit more stature to her, already tall, silhouette. “If he’s the lurker, then this is done and it wouldn’t speak regardless. No point in torture. If he isn’t, he’ll probably still say he is with enough encouragement.”
“We have to know, now.”
Athia’s hands tightened. “Hold him, no need to make it uncomfortable. Keep searching and acting like we haven’t found the lurker yet. That’s the best course of action.”
Gar shook his head, “you can sit on your hands if you’d like, we will not. The Tricorn are people of action, and we are willing to do what it takes in the protection of our people.”
“Give me the tongs,” Athia said, voice raising, “and I’ll have you admitting to whatever I want within the day.”
Gar’s shoulders tensed. “You’ve shown yourself clever and invaluable in this hunt, but also without the stomach to deal with an enemy of this intimate nature.” He opened a hand and raised it. “Continue to advise us in the search, but do not overstep those bounds or I will have you in chains.”
Her eyes flicked to Gar’s retinue. In the confines of the hall she didn’t think she could take them all. Not to mention, Clare and Tana would likely side with their commander. These weren’t the Einarr brutes or Lerian thugs. Any reservations she held for the Tricorn didn’t extend to their prowess in combat.
Still, she could break Gar’s nose before he responded. That would be nice.
The fight played out in her head, over and over. She thought through moves, options, routes that might bring her victory. They all ended the same, even the options that might result in her win. She’d lose the trust of the Tricorn, and she needed their help to end this.
Her mind settled on that single truth in the space of a short, nearing to awkward, pause. She needed to buy more time to pick a new option, so she let her mouth run while she thought.
“I let you get away with an insult and a slap already Gar, do you really want to push my patience?”
Athia kept her face neutral. That remark wouldn’t help, but she let it out before realizing her bruised ego took the reins.
Gar set his jaw. “I’m sure you’re a good fighter, but you’re a fool if you want to start something here.” He gestured to Athia’s escort, “why don’t you take her somewhere to cool off.”
Athia knew what would work. Pull rank. Tell him of her connection to Captain Lea, of getting Commander Darren’s explicit approval, thanks to Lea. That would shut him up. But she hated to do it, so much even now she wanted any other option. She couldn’t help who her family was, of the advantages and disadvantages that came with that, but she could choose whether or not to rely on their names. And, more than anything, she didn’t want to do that.
Her attention crept back to her companions.
Tana looked to Gar. “Sir, I think she’s right.”
Clare’s lips curled in, and she yanked Tana close to whisper.
Athia closed her eyes. It hurt, but she couldn’t protect her pride before others.
Tana said, “sir, she’s accomplished more in two days than we have in as many weeks. I understand your point, but sir, we’re not at war right now. This isn’t something we can fight with formations.”
Clare grabbed Tana and said, “what she means is you should listen to Athia.” She whispered, just loud enough to hear, “quiiieeet dummy.”
Gar glared at his subordinate. “It’s easy to say such things when you have no responsibility.”
Athia opened her eyes. “Captain Lea picked me for this,” she said, voice hissing steam. “She considers me unshared blood, and she arranged a fight between myself and Lieutenant Lorenz. In front of herself, Captain Finn, and Commander Darren.”
She stepped forward, chest almost touching Gar’s. “I got the commander of Olstin’s personal blessing to handle this as I saw fit.”
Gar spat, “I would know if-“
“I elected to not make that immediately known so I could gauge your ability, Gar,” Athia said, voice darkening. She pulled the official form from her cloak and let it unravel. “I am Athia Fensa. I have slain nine lurkers, dueled the Veil of the Einarr, broke a cavalry company of Lerian, and brought song to the Silent City.”
Gar flinched back. Athia stepped toward him.
Her finger leveled at Gar. “Who are you?”
Gar croaked, “have him.”