Figuring out an elaborate assassination attempt created by someone you didn’t know wasn’t easy. Athia stopped at two Lerian towns over the next two days to gather gossip and secure supplies. Some quick work made her enough money to replenish her rations for a time.
She took it easy when she could, letting her knee finish healing, then took off toward Clarient. Her rumor-mongering worked out the clearest paths from Clarient to the mercantile states. Enough for her to get started. Not because it was enough, but she knew she wouldn’t get much more.
Her guess said that they’d attempt to kill the Master on the road West. If she just tailed them, easier said than done, she could stop it mid-act. That left her with a few problems.
First, what if they didn’t try anything and she was just wrong? That was very possible, it might even be more likely than not! If that were so, she’d waste a great deal of time and effort on nothing. Luckily she was confident. It made the most sense in the given circumstance and, in her experience, the merchants had a fondness of assassins.
Next, what if she was right but couldn’t stop it? That would be a lot of wasted time and she might even get caught in her attempt. Granted, she went into this understanding it might end badly for her, very badly. Acceptable risk.
Third, what if she stopped the assassination but couldn’t do something worthwhile with that moment? She didn’t want to save this man only for him to go on with his life that caused so much harm. It might be better for her to let him die than save him with no gain. But Athia didn’t like that idea very much, for better or worse.
Finally, how could she send a message to Lerian as well? There were a few ideas bouncing around in her mind but, how could she be sure?
She couldn’t. That sat at the heart of it all. All she could do was try and hope for the best. But that was true in just about everything, so why sweat it? This might be more dangerous, with higher stakes, but she couldn’t do much worse than the coming war!
That brought her to a traveler’s town west of Clarient. The Master leaving his city happened so rarely that word of his trip spread fast and far. This little town, called, Tarsin, would be a stop on the way for the procession. Clarient held few other towns of any size, much less another with walls a permanent garrison. The plan practically wrote itself.
A need for discretion forced Athia to use a different tool. Makeup. Not the good kind. With some effort she gave herself a pallid complexion, dark eyes, hid a scar, and really ruined her hair with brush and oil. That plus hiding her armor under robes and walking with a hunch did wonders. She hated doing it, but no one questioned the haggard traveling woman, or paid her much mind.
Athia, on the other hand, paid via donation. It came from a few torchbearers she met on the road. They asked her for a donation but, by the end, she’d convinced them to help her instead. With minimal violence.
Everyone in Tarsin, the locals at least, worked as traders first and foremost. They organized the local logistics and redistributing the crops and crafts of the area between the communes. A sort of second capital, a satellite to order everything on this side of Clarient’s influence. Excess supplies could be bought by travelers.
A few from the communes set up stalls to make small goods on demand. They took Clariens exclusively. Exclusively when they were watched anyway. People did talk here. This far from the capital, most of the defense consisted of normal soldiers who weren’t paid enough to come down on every infraction. They preferred to keep a lazy watch and get paid.
Athia liked that. She got a little extra to eat and hunkered down in a quiet spot to get some rest. No one bothered her, to the point that two people argued over potato sizes within spitting distance. And they had every reason to think she was sleeping.
Another time, a soldier tried to get a rat away from a crotchety tabby cat. He lost more blood than the rat for his efforts. That and other little trivialities helped her pass the time in waiting. She would have preferred to have some fun, cause trouble, anything else. But she needed to rest, and she needed to think.
Two days passed like that. She left in the early hours to practice and exercise then returned hours later to eat and then find herself a new place to wait. At midday she walked about the town, getting used to it and finding food. When night came, she slept early to keep rested.
Athia spied the procession while finishing her morning practice. Not the Einarr one, but the Iylian escort coming from the West. Fifty Iylian professional, full-time soldiers of the new style of the Kol River’s mercantile states.
They carried tower shields spiked at the bottom so they might be driven into the ground. Short swords hung on their belts and crossbows on their shoulders. When Loiys broke everyone defended themselves in their own way. Along the Kol, this meant holding walls and protecting roads.
The formation stopped outside the town and went through a practice routine. At a whistle, they planted shields, so tall it hid most their form. The reach extended them until they overlapped and their spikes dug deep into the ground. Each soldier put a box of bolts on top their crossbow, then pulled a lever on the bottom.
In one motion it dropped a bolt into place while pulling back the string, lengthened by the reach. When the reach ended, it pulled the arms tight, readying a bolt that could match a ballista for force. They loosed all at once, sending a withering salvo into the trees. At a command, they swapped to bolts with heads that could be empowered.
They loosed one salvo of these, the heads too expensive to waste. When the bolts reached the trees, they burst in power and heat. Brush vanished and several trees fell in a crash. An army of quick firing artillery who wielded the power of burst as well as any Loiysian archers. The people of Tarsin got the message.
So did Athia. If they just turned and opened up on the Einarr’s leader she couldn’t do a thing. For one, she couldn’t take on fifty soldiers by herself. For two, she couldn’t stop fifty soldiers from firing explosive hand-artillery at once.
She did the only thing she could in the circumstance. Hope that wasn’t the plan. With that accomplished, her chances felt much better than they did a few minutes prior. Amazing what confidence could do for a situation.
As the next part of her plan, Athia needed to infiltrate the Ilyian ranks.
. . . . . .
“Wow that was great!” Athia called as she walked toward the Ilyians. “Can I learn that?” Her sweat and now oily hair from the morning workout really sold the disguise.
A woman in green segmented armor cut her off, holding up one hand while the other held her loaded crossbow to the side. “This is official business, don’t get close.”
Athia stepped nearer, hands rubbing together. It made her less threatening, but also made her look more like a rube.
“I’ve always wanted to see the Kol! Surely I can join you!”
The woman shoved Athia back. “Leave or get beaten.”
Athia’s eyes flicked past the woman. None of the soldiers stuck out to her. Their leader, marked by a gold stripe on his helm, went over a map with one of the local guards. All the Ilyians seemed casual, joking in between drills and as comfortable as could be. Athia hoped it a good sign.
She backed away from the woman. “No need to be so mean, I understand. Should I pay first?”
The woman punched Athia in the face. Or, more accurately, Athia let herself get punched in the face. Not that the metal gauntlet hurt any less for being consensual. She recoiled, clutching her nose and fighting the urge to return the favor.
“If you ever make it to the Kol, drown in it,” the woman spat. “Filthy wretch.”
Athia looked up at the woman as blood leaked from her nose. A good hit.
She said, “whus yur nam?”
The soldier pulled her fist back again and Athia retreated.
“Lieutenant Cara,” the woman said. “And if you skulk about her again, I’ll have them bring you to me.”
Athia turned and hurried away. She got her close look, which was as much as she could hope for right now. Everyone wore the proper armor, she’d seen these types more than once. They all spoke with the lighter Kol accents, at least those she heard, and the formation performed as she’d expect.
Which was to say, they were legitimate Ilyian soldiers, not Kol mercenaries. That made her doubt they were here to kill the master. Reputation mattered too much along the Kol, why ruin yours for a worthless faux-king like Lerian?
Athia went back into Tarsin to listen to gossip. The Einarr leader would arrive in another day or two, according to several messengers traveling through town. That gave her time to do one of two things. Scout ahead and look for any signs of ambushes and additional danger or link up with the Einarr procession to start her watch early.
She struggled to imagine the Ilyians openly murdering someone they took a job to protect. No one would want to work with them, or hire them if word got out, and it would. The Einarr would scream it to the horizons. People might not like the Einarr, by and large, but they preferred that to a good backstabbing.
Thus, she chose to head out and join the Einarr’s procession. Her little disguise might not be so useful there, so she needed to be careful. With that in mind, she took the road east on foot.
Her normal mode of transportation drew too much attention. Most of her concerns centered on Veil, someone she’d asked about after their encounter. She couldn’t help but expect them to be with the Master. And she wanted a rematch, even if it didn’t fit into her plans.
She passed far more people on this route. Actual trade happened here, helping to keep the communes cared for and supplied. She wondered what kinds of small heresies got committed here, where the torchbearers couldn’t shine their lights. How many lied about their harvests? Or their needs?
Probably the same as anywhere else.
Skeletal trees made up most her view, garnished with orange embers of leaves. Much of the wildlife grew more skittish in winter when people became hungry. That made the walk quiet, but the enjoyable sort of quiet. The quiet that follows a good laugh, when it’s too early to tell another joke lest the moment be ruined.
It made Athia forget where she walked, at least for a time. Riding might be more fun but walking left time to savor the trek. And it also hurt her feet more, which became an annoyance far sooner than she liked. Traveling wretches didn’t wear good boots! She focused on other things to take away from the aches.
A few people returned her peppy greetings, she couldn’t help herself, and at least one with more gusto than she liked. That was part of the fun though, never knowing what to expect.
One older woman said, “why don’t you camp with us, I can fix that tangle on your head!”
“I’m in a bit of a hurry but thank you!”
Refusing that turned out to be the most difficult part of this little adventure so far. She felt like she carried a dead bird’s nest on her head. The things she put up with to be a hero.
She kept walking, until the last light forced her to stop. Another circle went up around her small camp, but this time she slept with her back to a massive tree stump. That morning, she woke to more marks on her symbol base and a series of scrapes on the ground around her. When she checked the tree, deep scratches covered much of the back of it.
And she never heard it.
Athia swept her eyes over the area, chewing the inside of her cheek. “Don’t think I’m not on to you. Continue at your own peril.”
She set off again, on a light breakfast, and found the Einarr procession within an hour. Which ruined her plan to spend a week walking while she decided what to do when she did find them. She should have walked slower.
The Einarr brought fifty of their own. Not torchbearers but regular soldiers. That spoke volumes. And it couldn’t sit well with the Einarr enforcers. A snub, an insult, or an admittance of distrust. None of them could be a good sign for what was going on inside their government.
“Don’t trust the goons in a pinch,” Athia said to herself. She wouldn’t either, after her few run ins with them.
After a few moments of considering her options, Athia strolled up to the column and said, in her scraggliest voice, “might I travel with you! The lurkers have the roads so dangerous!”
The leader of the column, a scarred older man with a plumed helm, eyed her. Then he gestured her back to the end of his formation, where other travels gathered for safety.
“May It bless you,” Athia said with a small bow. She scurried away, head low and hood pulled tight.
The Master’s carriage rolled past her, gilded in polished bronze and bearing four lit torches on each corner. He said something she couldn’t understand, to a person she couldn’t see. Athia’s hand clinched as distance grew between them. A large part of her wanted to whack him across the head, but she knew better.
At the back, she fell in with several laborers, their clothes dirty and faces matching. She struck up a conversation with one of them, about how he wound up with mismatched boots, and the final leg of her plan began.